For a man whose voice is so instantly recognisable, whose phrasing and lyrical styles are so identifiable as utterly his own, Mark Lanegan has done an admirable job of avoiding easy categorisation over his thirty-year career. His impressive body of work has covered everything from desert-baked stoner rock to breathy, folk-tinged indie pop, and now, on new EP No Bells on Sunday (a precursor to new LP due this autumn), he adds dreamy hints of electro to the more familiar elements of his sound.
Opener “Dry Iced” begins in an atmospheric, considered fashion, yet soon evolves into a disarmingly bouncy number, all four-on-the-floor drums and billowing synth pads. Lanegan’s voice remains as darkly stately as always, but he uses his inimitable baritone sparingly, casting surprisingly delicate strands of melody over the lush instrumentation. It works beautifully.
The song that follows, the EP’s title track, is even better. A sombre, graceful cousin of Lanegan-featuring Queens Of The Stone Age track “In the Fade”, its simple, lilting vocal melodies, funeral-march rhythms and windswept synth breaks combine to fabulous effect. The introspective spell that this song casts is broken bullishly by its successor, “Sad Lover”, a more straightforward slice of electro-informed rock vaguely reminiscent of TV on the Radio’s more propulsive moments.
Fourth track “Jonas Pap” is a fleeting change of direction, two and a half gentle minutes of pretty, melancholic folk augmented by a swooning string arrangement.
“Smokestack Magic” closes the EP in ambitious style, with Lanegan exploring the full extent of his deceptively wide vocal range as layers of heavily distorted guitars, doomy synths and jittery percussion pinwheel energetically around the focal point his voice provides. This final cut goes on for over eight minutes, yet each impassioned phrase Lanegan utters feels vital.
This EP signifies an extremely successful attempt on Lanegan’s behalf to keep his career moving, to resist the onset of the kind of complacency that would actually be perfectly understandable for a man who has managed to maintain such an enviably well-respected position in the alternative rock scene for three decades now. If his forthcoming full-length is as consistently superb as this EP, it could be one of the albums of the year.